Wednesday, April 15, 2009

'Astrologi peritissimi': Lilly's tomb, Walton-on-Thames

Over this Easter Saturday to Walton-on-Thames, and the Church of St Mary there, to see where the old fox William Lilly went finally to earth. Thanks to his friend Elias Ashmole, Lilly far outlasted the old accusations of spirit-calling, and got interred in the chancel of the church. The slab is worn, and cracked. I could make out:


The excellent parish guide offers a translation perhaps from days when the slab was better preserved: 'Let not the urn of William Lilly, a most learned astronomer, be destroyed by oblivion, who yielded to destiny on the 9th of June, in the Julian year of Christ, 1681. Elias Ashmole, Knight, placed over him this monument of love'. Perhaps 'most expert astrologer' would be a better translation of 'astrologi peritissimi', the version of 'hoc illi posuit' also seems expansive. But the general sense seems right; I like Ashmole specifying that this is a death dated under the Julian calendar. Though portrait engravings usually have the astrologer with his astrolabe and birth chart, there is no specifically astrological imagery on the tombstone. But that doesn't surprise me, it would have been a bit of a shock to see an astrological motif in the chancel of a church. The 'urna' may just be conventional words, or perhaps there once was a corresponding wall-mounted urn.

My other image is one of the Selwyn brasses. The full set have been lifted from the floor and reset out of harm's way on the wall. He was John Selwyn, keeper of her Majesty's park of Oteland (Oaklands, in Surrey). He died in 1587: his wife Susan and their 11 children are also depicted, and the proud note that all the children were 'lyving at his death', this as something quite remarkable.

But the main picture is the greatest moment of his career, the thing that he was remembered by: apparently, during a royal hunting party, Selwyn leapt off his horse onto a stag, kept his seat on the terrified and doomed animal, steered it round, then gave it the coup de grace right in front of the Queen.

The brass hinges out, to reveal another version of the same scene, almost identical but less confidently incised: Selwyn has lost his hat in this other version. The story was collected in 1773, way after living memory, the the aged sexton involved was probably transmitting a true story, even though it might have been extrapolated from the brass and its inscription: there was probably a local tradition.

I dare say that the present Elizabeth would respond quite well to some adept fellow finishing off a stag with such aplomb right in front of her, but obviously it would get a bad press these tender-hearted days (when you can adopt a red deer stag in Richmond Park for £50 a year, or £500 for life). Those stags in Richmond Park are impressively sized animals: Selwyn obviously took a big risk. Queen Victoria apparently approved an even gorier version of the same incident for the Ascot Gold Cup, the Queen's Vase of 1847.

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